3 years on, still no closure for Nov protests victims’ families

People  protest on Mengo Hill Road in Kampala after the arrest of National Unity Platform presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, on November 18, 2020. Photo/File

What you need to know:

  • In days that followed the November protests, armed men in vans snatched people from markets, taxi stops, petrol stations, roadsides, and homes.

Next weekend will mark three years since state actors killed scores of people after the arrest of Opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias Bobi Wine, triggered protests in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

To mark the grim anniversary, Bobi Wine’s party—the National Unity Platform (NUP)—has released a list of 20 Ugandans who vanished in thin air, starting November 18. These include Isma Ssesaazi, who was last seen in the Kampala suburb of Makindye on November 19, 2020.  A day later, Mustafa Luwemba went missing in Kyabando, Kawempe Division, Kampala. Never to be seen again. Ditto Hassan Mubiru, 35, last seen on November 20, 2020, in Kawaala, Lubaga Division, Kampala. 

The return of drones and abductions
On NUP’s list are also Martin Lukwago, 32, last seen on November 23, 2020, in Bugoloobi, Nakawa Division, Kampala; Denis Zimula, 26, last seen on November 25, 2020, in Kyebando Village, Nansana in Wakiso District; and Michael Ssemuddu, last seen in Lubya-Kasubi, Lubaga Division, Kampala, on November 28, 2020.    

On December 1, 2020, Peter Kirya, 26, vanished in Kyebando-Nansana, Wakiso District. On the same day, Vincent Nalumonso, 28, was last seen in Bugoloobi, Kampala. Others who were disappeared per NUP include Shafik Wangolo (December 3, 2020); Musisi Mbowa (December 18, 2020); Yuda  Ssempijja (December 19, 2020); John  Ddamulira (December 21, 2020); and Kanatta Muhammad (December 23, 2020).

For Moses Mbabazi, it’s not yet clear which day he went missing in Kisekka Market, downtown Kampala. Ditto Joseph Baguma who disappeared in December 2020 in Kyebando, Kawempe Division. Alex Karyowa was last seen on July 25, 2023, in Kireka, Wakiso District.   
Those picked from rural Buganda include George Kasumba from  Kayunga, in January 2021;  Godfrey Kisembo from Mubende; and Juma Muganda from Kangulumira, Kayunga,  on June  5, 2023. 

Common thread
Apart from John Bosco Kibalama, 38, who was last seen in Kanyanya on June 3, 2019, the common thread is the 19 mentioned people disappeared in the aftermath of the November 18 to 19, 2020 demonstrations that engulfed Buganda Sub-region and some parts of Busoga Sub-region. Bobi Wine had been arrested while on the campaign trail in the eastern district of Luuka on account of flouting Covid-19 guidelines. In tow with Mr Kyagulanyi was Andrew Muwanguzi, a pastor-turned-NUP mobiliser ahead of their rally at the Ssaza Grounds, Luuka Town Council in Luuka District. 

Fred Enanga, the Uganda Police spokesperson, indicated then that Mr Kyagulanyi and Mr Muwanguzi had violated the Electoral Commission and Ministry of Health pandemic-related guidelines. 
“The two were actively involved in the massive mobilisation of unauthorised assemblies and processions amid the threat of Covid-19 in Uganda,” he said then, adding, “The majority of the participants had no safeguards of face masks, physical distancing, and proper hygiene.” 

As news spread like wildfire that Kyagulanyi had been arrested, Kampala and other parts of the country erupted into violence for two days. In their response, state actors not only beat back the protestors but also killed—per the government’s admission—more than 54 people. 

Independent observers came to the conclusion that those felled included bystanders, food vendors and market traders. A 2021 BBC investigation revealed just as much, pegged the blame to a single truck carrying eight police officers. The British broadcaster reassembled the killing of four people on Kampala Road. This included the death of a 15-year-old boy and the serious wounding of two women in a different place in the capital. 
The BBC analysed more than 300 video clips from mobile phones. Interviews in the excess of 30 witnesses also strongly suggested that all four people—none of whom were involved in any criminal activity or protest—were shot by state actors. The Uganda Police Force could only admit that the vehicle identified in the investigation was theirs but contended they had no information linking it to an unselective shooting. 

Owning up?
A week or so after the protests, President Museveni confirmed the death of 54 Ugandans during the November 18 and 19 protests. He defended the state actors for using live ammunition, reasoning that they were handling “rioters.”   
Initially, Mr Museveni claimed the riots were funded externally to destabilise Uganda. 
“Some of these groups are being used by outsiders, homosexuals, and others who don’t like the stability and independence of Uganda, but they will discover what they are looking for,” said Mr Museveni while on the 2021 presidential campaign trail. “Those who have been attacking NRM [National Resistance Movement] people in the Kampala area will soon lose that appetite, they have entered an area we know very well, the area of fighting, they will regret.”   

Later, during his acceptance speech after winning the 2021 presidential poll, Museveni conceded that his army could have made mistakes when stamping out the demonstrations. He ascribed the bloopers to poor leadership.  

“They [state actors] just go into a situation without proper briefing, but the law is very clear. We have put it in the law, the procedures are very clear, the standing orders are very clear how to handle the different types of troublemakers. If they are peaceful but lawbreakers in an illegal demonstration, there is how to handle it,” he said, adding, “There, you use non-lethal methods which are there: tear gas, water cannon. Those are there, they don’t kill, they discourage and somebody goes away. If somebody becomes violent and threatens the lives of the security people, there is also a procedure. In some cases, mistakes happen, some of them don’t follow that procedure and make mistakes—fire when they should not fire.”  

In days that followed the November protests, armed men in vans snatched people from markets, taxi stops, petrol stations, roadsides, and homes. Hundreds of disappearances were reported in the press and on social media. 
“We have tried everything possible to get our people back, but we have not got answers,” NUP’s Secretary General David Lewis Rubongoya told Monitor this week. 

National Unity Platform leader Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine. 

Opposition MPs have recently refrained from House proceedings in an attempt to ramp up pressure on the government to explain the whereabouts of the missing people. The Museveni administration has been quick to dismiss them, saying the Opposition lawmakers have turned the House into a theatre to gain political capital ahead of the 2026 General Election.  
“Of late, our friends in the opposition have decided to bring what is ordinarily supposed to be played out the National Theatre and decided to play in parliament. I don’t know what they have achieved,” Dr Chris Baryomunsi, the Information, Communication, Technology and National Guidance minister said, adding, “People should hold the Opposition leaders to account. Why should you be elected to represent people in Parliament and then you are constantly walking out?”    
Mr Enanga, the police spokesperson who has previously denied the Force being in possession of the NUP supporters, told Saturday Monitor this week that the matter is above them. 
“The issue is now before the Attorney General and Parliament. Why would you now come back to lower offices yet the matter is beyond us?” he said. 

Paltry compensation
After the November killings, Museveni vowed to compensate families of bystanders whose lives were tragically cut short. This has, however, never been materialised. The only form of compensation came after Justice Musa Ssekaana’s hammer went down in the High Court’s civil division, awarding Hajara Nakitto a paltry Shs50m. This was after it was ruled that the military killed Amos Segawa, her 15-year-old son.   
Nakitto, a businesswoman, said “after carrying out daily business duties at around 11am I saw soldiers firing bullets aimlessly.”
As Nakitto approached the cornerstone building around the Clock Tower, in downtown Kampala, she saw a green military police vehicle with soldiers. They were coming from Mengo and headed to the Clock Tower with their guns pointed at people who were running for their lives.  
Nakitto’s maternalistic instinct compelled her to look over her shoulder not for herself but her son. It is then that she realised that Segawa had been fatally shot. 

“I jumped on the other side and fell down, looking at my fallen son. I saw he was bleeding and unconscious,” she recounted, adding, “He did not survive the bullet because it had penetrated and shattered the right side of his neck and he died as soon as he reached the hospital.” 
Regardless, the Attorney General asked that Nakitto’s case be dismissed on grounds that she had not adduced any evidence to impute liability on the government. Justice Ssekaana, however, agreed with Eron Kiiza, Nakitto’s lawyer, that indeed the teenager had died as a result of the “ stray bullet” which, the judge said, “could have been fired by either the soldiers or police” in an attempt to quell or stop the protests in Kampala.
The country was in a state of confusion, Justice Ssekaana said, as a result of protests in different parts of the country and yet it was a campaign period ahead of the 2021 elections. It could not be possible, the judge said, for Nakitto or her deceased son to identify who fired a stray bullet.

“I hereby find this issue in the affirmative and declare that respondent’s soldiers/officers’ shooting and killing of the applicant’s son violated the deceased’s fundamental right to life contrary to Articles 20 (2) and 22 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995,” Justice Ssekaana said, referring in particular to Article 22 which stipulates that no person shall be deprived of life intentionally except in execution of a sentence passed in a fair trial by court of competent jurisdiction in respect of a criminal offence under the laws of Uganda and the conviction and sentence have been confirmed by highest appellate court. 

Price of being young
Citing the loss of life of her promising son, Nakitto had demanded Shs200 million as compensation for loss of life and Shs5 million for punitive damages. Though Ssekaana agreed that Nakitto had lost her son to the hands of undisciplined and reckless security operatives, he refused to give her the damages she had asked for. He cited a High Court judgement by now-retired Justice Remmy Kasule who said “in case of a young person, these damages tend to be reduced because there is so much uncertainty about this young person’s future that no confident estimate of prospective happiness can be made.” 

Justice Kasule proceeded to note in the ruling thus: “A young person has as yet no settled prospects, has not yet passed the risks and uncertainties of childhood, and has, as yet, not acquired an established character and firmer hopes to make his or her future more definite. The extent to which good fortune may probably attend to him/her becomes less incalculable.”

Adding in the case of Cypriano Odongo vs Attorney General of 2006 thus: “The compensation is not being given to the person injured, for that person is dead. Thus, damages which would be proper for a disabling injury tend to be greater than those for deprivation of life. The principal function of awarding damages for the expectation of life is to provide an indirect way to award damages for bereavement, particularly in the Uganda context, because, under the common law, no claim of solitude or bereavement could be entertained.”  
Based on that precedent, Justice Ssekaana said that his court is guided by the principles and observation of Justice Kasule’s judgements and the general circumstances surrounding the shooting and killing of Nakitto’s son. He consequently awarded her a compensation of Shs50 million.   
“The applicant (Nakitto) has not made out any justification for the award of punitive damages and the court is equally mindful of the fact that it was a riotous atmosphere as the soldiers’ policemen were trying to keep law and order in the city,” Justice Ssekaana concluded.

Still missing  

For those who are unaccounted for, Mathias Mpuuga, the Leader of Opposition, has insisted that they won’t return to the House until when they get satisfactory responses from the government.  
“I want to assure Ugandans that we shall not relent on our demands until justice is served. Families, which lost their dear ones must get justice, be compensated and the perpetrators charged. Those who are still detained illegally must also be produced to reunite them with their families,” Mpuuga said.

In terms of justice, only two soldiers have been convicted of firing at people in the November demonstrations, Lance Corporal Augustine Mugisha was given a life sentence by the UPDF First Division court. This was after he admitted carrying out the double killing of Hussein Sseggona, a member of the Local Defence Unit (LDU) and Grace Walungama, a mechanic in Nansana.  On the other hand, Mustafa Ssali, an LDU member, was sentenced to spend 35 years in jail after he admitted to killing Ibrahim Kireevu Mutaasa in Wandegeya, Kampala.